Osbern Bokenham

Osbern Bokenham (1393-1467?) was an Augustinian friar from Stoke-Clare, Suffolk. Like Capgrave, he studied at Cambridge during the 1420s, and he eventually became an Augustinian administrator, serving as vicar general in 1461 and 1463 for his order's provincial chapter meetings. Though he spent most of his life at Clare, he mentions visits to Spain, Italy, and Wales.

Bokenham was a prolific hagiographer. He started writing saints' lives in English about the same time Capgrave did. His first endeavor, a verse life of Saint Margaret, was written in 1443 at the request of his fellow friar Thomas Burgh. In his prologue to that life, he professed to be reluctant to write for fear of criticism, much as Capgrave did in his Life of Saint Norbert. During the 1440s, Bokenham wrote more lives of female saints in Middle English verse, most at the request of his East Anglian friends and neighbors. In 1447, Burgh commissioned an anthology of thirteen of those lives. That anthology survives as British Library MS Arundel 327 and is known as his Legends of Holy Women.

Bokenham knew Capgrave's Life of Saint Katherine: he refers to it in the prologue to his own shorter and simpler account of the saint's martyrdom, written for two friends named Katherine and included in Arundel 327. To judge from "Katherine" and the other the saints' lives contained in Arundel 327, Bokenham was a conservative author, who eschewed the morally and theologically complex hagiography that was being written by Capgrave, Lydgate, and other contemporaries.

In 2004 a second, much larger, collection of Bokenham's lives was discovered in the library of the Faculty of Advocates in Abbotsford, Scotland, and was identified by Simon Horobin as the "englische boke" that Bokenham claims in his "Mappula Angliae" to have "compiled of legenda aurea and of oþer famous legendes." The so-called Abbotsford Legenda aurea shows that Bokenham has a far greater range than one would suspect from the lives comprising Arundel 327. Bokenham was the first English hagiographer to give Augustine's mother Monica a life of her own, and that life bears comparison with Capgrave's extended account of Monica in his Life of St. Augustine. Bokenham also composed a life of Augustine. His life of the learned St. Barbara is similar to Capgrave's Katherine in its intricate plotting, theological disquisitions, and moral complexity. The Abbotsford collection is an odd amalgam of verse and prose that includes most of the lives found in Arundel 327, albeit without their references to specific patrons and dedicatees.

In addition to his saints' lives, Bokenham wrote a geographical treatise in Middle English, the "Mappula Angliae" mentioned above. He is also thought to have authored a translation of Claudian's fifth-century panegyric De Consulatu Stilichonis and "Dialogue at the Grave," which recounts the ancestors and descendants of Clare Priory's foundress, Joan of Acre, daughter of King Edward I. (In his Chronicles, Capgrave recounts Joan's burial at Clare Priory and the exhumation of her incorrupt body fifty-two years later.)

Further Reading